Departing from themes such as 2012’s As Slow as Possible and 2014’s Extraction, the biannual AV Festival takes a more explicitly political approach ths year in Meanwhile, what about Socialism? Part One. George Orwell’s ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ is the thematic framework around which the festival is curated. First published in 1937 Orwell’s book investigates the living conditions of the working class in Lancashire and Yorkshire as well as Britain’s attitude towards socialism as a whole.
As part of the festival, Workplace Gallery in Gateshead presents works by Hugo Canoilas’, a Lisbon born graduate of the Royal College of Art, London. Canoilas’ work investigates writings such as ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ and other political philosophy.
In this exhibition, the gallery has been split into two sections, the downstairs focusing on the physical experience and the upstairs intellectual.
Lava-grotto (2016) confronts you immediately as you enter the gallery. The large front space of the building has been split horizontally by a translucent, painted canvas, so that the viewer is forced to duck down to navigate the work. The only source of light is above this artificial ceiling so that the room is unnervingly dark. Lava-grotto aims to evoke the experience of stumbling through a mine, a reference to the mining history of the North East and therefore also the social context in which ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ was written. Within the dark space detritus is strewn across the floor and painted in uniformly dark paint, leaving the viewer to attempt to uncover the secrets of the space in the limited light. The piece also references Plato’s cave allegory, in which slaves chained to the wall of the cave are unable to conceive of reality beyond their shadows. The work is an inventive response to a festival that largely focuses on new media based work and is an engaging way to allow audiences to process references that can be quite daunting.
The upstairs of the gallery, the apparently more intellectual space (as suggested in the accompanying text), mostly features paintings from Canoilas’ Dinosaur series. These works are based on paintings and illustrations found in a book from a thrift store, bought by the artist for his daughter. Images of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals are prominent, painted in a fairly loose style, with parts of the canvas beneath showing through. Without further research into the series from which these are taken the reason for their inclusion in the festival is not clear. Other works in the series typically show the creatures in conversation, with cartoon like speech bubbles filled with quotations from political philosophy texts, which is alluded to in the catalogue text, making their absence slightly confusing.
Canoilas’ show does provide a visually playful contribution to the festival and does make some effective references to key texts in exciting and inventive ways. The selection of paintings chosen from the Dinosaur series for the show does make the viewer experience much more confusing than it needs to be, especially as the accompanying text is not particularly helpful. This is a shame when the overall investigative arc of the show and the festival as a whole are incredibly relevant to the current political climate and is well worth viewing once armed with some pre-visit research.
Hugo Canoilas continues at Workplace Gallery until 27 March 2016. This exhibition is part of a thematic series of exhibitions titled Meanwhile, what about Socialism? and is presented by AV Festival.
Images: Hugo Canoilas, Lava-grotto, 2016. Photo: John David Lawson. Courtesy of the artist and Workplace Gallery; Hugo Canoilas, Picasso head, 2016. Ink on linen. Photo: John David Lawson. Courtesy of the artist and Workplace Gallery